In June 2015, Dee Dee Blanchard was found dead, facedown in her bed, revealing stab wounds that were inflicted several days earlier. Neighbors called the police after a Facebook post on Dee Dee’s account made them concerned that either she had been hacked or something was gravely wrong. It read, “That bitch is dead.”
All of this would be alarming even if it weren’t for the extraordinary circumstances that sent Dee Dee’s neighbors into more of a panic. For as long as they’d known Dee Dee, since she moved into her Habitat for Humanity-built bungalow in Springfield, Missouri seven years earlier, she had been the devoted caretaker for her daughter, Gypsy Rose.
No neighbor could accurately recount the list of ailments Dee Dee had told them Gypsy Rose suffered from: muscular dystrophy, chromosomal defects, sleep apnea, leukemia, acid reflux, asthma, numerous allergies, and many more. Gypsy Rose was confined to a wheelchair, and had the shaved head many patients with chronic conditions opt for when their hair falls out. Dee Dee would warn people that, though she was a teenager, Gypsy Rose only had “the mental capacity of a 7-year-old due to brain damage.”
When authorities discovered Dee Dee’s body, however, Gypsy Rose was nowhere to be found, leading neighbors to fear that she had been abducted—or worse.
No one was prepared for the shock when she was finally located: Gypsy Rose was standing. Walking. In perfect health, despite not having the buffet of medicines with her that her mother fed her by regimen. More, she was with a secret boyfriend six years her senior.
She was an adult, who suffered from none of the ailments that had earned her the sympathy and charity of her neighbors, not to mention organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Ronald McDonald House, and the Make-a-Wish Foundation. She had been complicit in faking all of her disorders, allowing her mother to care for her like a sick child, or a doll.
The medicines were real. The doctors were real. The illnesses were not. Was it child abuse? Was it Munchausen syndrome by proxy, the mental disorder in which a person either invents or inflicts illness on someone close to them so that they need their care? Or was it plain fraud?
One thing was certain: It was murder. Gypsy Rose and her boyfriend were both charged with first-degree murder, in one of the wildest modern crime stories to date.
It’s no wonder then that the saga has been ripe for TV treatment in the few short years since the murder occurred.
There’s 2017’s HBO documentary, Mommy Dead and Dearest, and the 20/20 special, “The Story of Gypsy Blanchard,” that featured Gypsy Rose’s first interview from prison. It goes without saying that the Investigation Discovery channel was all over it. As sure as the sky is blue, there was a Lifetime movie, Love You to Death, starring Marcia Gay Harden and Emily Skeggs, that aired in January.
The latest offering, coming just a few short months after that, attempts to put the high-brow, prestige television lens on the sordid case. Hulu’s The Act, with Patricia Arquette as Dee Dee and Joey King as Gypsy Rose, launches Wednesday, adapted from the authoritative BuzzFeed article on the matter, Michelle Dean’s “Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter to Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom Murdered.”
The Act is, in a way, Hulu’s answer to FX and Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story series, which dramatized with style, craft, and renewed cultural insight the People vs. O.J. Simpson trial and the assassination of Gianni Versace. The Act is also planned as an anthology series, with each season tackling a stranger-than-fiction true crime story.
Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose’s story certainly fits the bill as an opening salvo. As with American Crime Story, knowing the broad details of what happened, up to and including the brutal outcome, doesn’t detract from the experience of watching Patricia Arquette and Joey King act the hell out of an exploding Pandora’s box of secrets.
With eight episodes approaching an hour each, the tabloid, crime-rag details no longer overshadow the character study and societal commentary beneath the case. No brisk murder thriller, The Act turns the Blanchard case into an eight-hour psychological horror show.
We can call 2019 the Year of the Scam, and rightfully so, with the Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman college cheating scandal, Jussie Smollett controversy, Fyre Festival documentaries, and the Elizabeth Holmes saga ensuring that grifts relentlessly capture the zeitgeist. But, as grave as each of those cases were, they’ve been told with an underlying sense of humor and mockery in the media.
The Act is certainly on the pulse of our culture, detailing yet another outrageous con. But from the chilly direction to the ominous score, it’s told with a skin-crawling seriousness that grounds all of our light-hearted noise about scams with a sobering crash. The question then becomes how much of the recreation of this horrible tale is put on screen for us to gawk at, and how much is meant to actually say something: about empathy, voyeurism, parenting, abuse, charity, and scandal? The answer, in the end, is uncomfortably hard to come by.
Arquette, following her work in Escape at Dannemora, completely disappears into yet another tour de force performance. She nimbly tightropes her characterization of Dee Dee between concerned mother and twisted monster, delivering a Kathy Bates in Misery, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction-level performance. Obsession is a hard note to play, especially when it’s meant to harmonize with both compassion and evil. Arquette is transfixing.
King is great, too, in a difficult role, requiring her to modulate her voice to a higher pitch in order to sound young, yet still needing to betray enough awareness of what’s going on around her and suspicion of her mother to beat the percussion of the story’s suspense.
As we meet the doctors and neighbors and charities that Dee Dee has managed to con into sympathy for her daughter and, more, her lot in life as the caring mother, The Act also becomes a fascinating indictment of the pageantry of charity. More, watching through the 2019 lens, the allure of scams.
Generosity isn’t pure. Especially today, a short four years after the Blanchard saga, paranoia and skepticism has escalated in a world of fraudulent Kickstarters, GoFundMes, and performative suffering. It’s still our instinct to Do Something whenever we hear of tragedy, which, thanks to social media, is at a constant clip depending on how often you refresh your Facebook newsfeed. And that instinct is still to give money.
But even then there’s a bit of an arms race for how much charity a person deserves, and certainly a shadowy corner of society where people begrudge fawning over the sick or disabled at all. Betray us with a story like Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose’s, and we become apoplectic. We’re a culture of Jekyll and Hyde: selfless generosity transformed to craven revenge.
The Act does a powerful job dramatizing this. That may answer a bit of the “what’s the point?” question that American Crime Story and even Dirty John raise, but then you’re brought back to the characters of Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose. Why? Why did Dee Dee do this? Why did Gypsy Rose let it go on for so long? There are glances at those answers, and maybe the truth is there aren’t any satisfying ones.
The Act does well by making you itch with discomfort throughout its run. For better or worse, the itch doesn’t go away.
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